Deer Calling: Always & Never
October 07, 2016
My evening hunt had been a total bust so far. After driving for a half-hour to reach my destination, I found the landowner out in the woodlot cutting trees, and upon checking a piece of public land close by and finding other hunters already there, I reluctantly jumped back in my pickup and headed for home.
Nearly back to town, I remembered a small chunk of public land bordering the city limits that always held a few deer, and since it was a beautiful evening and I had no other options, I decided to just slip in and sit on the ground until dark.
Given the small size of the area, I quietly eased into the woods and ghosted through the dense cover until I came to a small clearing. There I melted into a fallen oak, nocked a heavy arrow on the string of my longbow, and listened intently as the shadows lengthened all around me.
Since this was not one of my normal hunting spots, I really had no plan of attack. So I decided to wait until nearly sunset before giving the fawn bleat call resting in my jacket pocket a try.
Back in those days, I never had much faith in calling, so my efforts were few and far between. But as the sun kissed the western horizon, I put the call to my lips and shattered the stillness with the bawl of a lost fawn. The results were dramatic!
Instantly there was loud crashing across the clearing, and in less time than it takes to relive the episode, a huge doe stood boring a hole in my hideout from mere feet away! She stood for only a few seconds, and then was gone.
I have to admit that in my shock, I never even gave any consideration to shooting her. So dumbfounded was I, that my deer call still hung from my lips, and my longbow did likewise from the branch beside me. But once I realized I had just successfully called in a deer, I planned to be ready the next time.
Grabbing my bent stick and pointing my arrow towards the now-vacant clearing in front of me, I again let out a loud series of fawn bawls, and the doe instantly came rocketing back in. Now, I'd like to say that a short time later I was dragging a fat whitetail out of the woods, but the fact of the matter is that while I called that same doe into pointblank range four separate times, I never did get off a shot. What I did do, however, was start a lifelong love of deer calling.
That particular evening is a distant memory now, having taken place probably three decades ago. That big doe was the very first big game animal I ever called into bow range, but in the years since I have called in literally hundreds of whitetails, as well as a host of other animals.
Many have given me the slip, and many still do, but calling has become my favorite tactic to use in the deer woods, and I've put enough animals in the freezer, and on the wall, to know that this is a dynamite hunting technique.
The key to calling success is realizing that there are a few do's and don'ts that hold true wherever and whenever you attempt to use sound to bring an animal in close.
Always believe this tactic will work. This seems obvious, but I know a lot of really good bowhunters who have had little or no success when calling, and the reason is simply that they don't believe they will be successful. A big part of the problem is how many bowhunters were initiated into the sport. We are taught early on to be silent and invisible, a completely unnoticed part of the landscape.
Obviously, if you're out there banging a set of antlers together, or wailing on a bleat call, this is contradictory to this early training. But all big game animals vocalize, and therefore all big game animals can be lured into range by mimicking their sounds. Believe it will work, and it will work!
Never Call Half-Heartedly
As with any bowhunting endeavor, success doesn't happen 100 percent of the time, and it's easy to get discouraged and lose confidence. But don't ever call without giving it your best effort.
Without a concerted effort to do the job well, you'll actually alert and educate more deer than you'll ever see, making it even harder to call those animals into bow range in the future. If you're going to call, give it your best effort, because chances are there will be animals that hear you either way.
Always, always, always be ready to shoot! Without question, this is the number-one failing for bowhunters when it comes to a lack of success when calling, and I've certainly been guilty of this myself more times than I'd care to admit.
Sometimes throughout a given season, it seems that the woods are a void, without a living animal within earshot. When that happens, it's human nature to let our guard down just a little, and invariably that's when Mr. Big comes in on a string to our calling and we miss the opportunity.
Regardless of what type of calling you're attempting, have your bow in hand if possible or, if not, grab your bow immediately after finishing your calling sequence. Just this past year I was in a natural ground blind on public land here in Minnesota, and I missed a slam-dunk opportunity at a good buck because I didn't heed this advice.
It was the late season and very cold, and with the hunting being slow after gun season, I rattled aggressively but then tucked my hands inside my jacket to warm them up instead of grabbing my longbow. Of course, the tall eight-pointer that slipped by at 12 yards was happy I wasn't always ready to shoot!
Never set up where your quarry can get behind you. Of course, this isn't always possible. But given the option, I always try to set up for a calling sequence with some sort of barrier to keep approaching animals out in front of my location. There are those occasions when an animal will throw caution to the wind and charge headlong into your setup. But more often than not, a cagey old buck will try and circle your position.
My favorite all-time setup would be along the shoreline of a lake or river, but even open fields, steep ridges, and other barriers will work the same way. I have a favorite stand location here in Minnesota that has been very kind to me over the years. The stand sits in a huge, old oak that hangs out over a deep beaver pond. I've called in numerous whitetails at this location, and none of them ever knew danger was around, except those that ended up coming out of the woods with me at the end of the day!
Always use calling aids whenever possible. When a deer responds to your calling, it is expecting to see other animals — period. Unless it comes charging in, it will almost always come in cautiously and be looking, listening, and scent-checking for the perceived source of the sounds it heard, which is why I like to use scents and decoys to help put approaching animals at ease.
I once missed out on a giant Manitoba buck that I rattled in because my setup was on an open oak ridge where the approaching animal could clearly see that there were no bucks fighting as he got close. The upshot of the whole story was that he got suspicious and circled, and I never got a shot.
I believe wholeheartedly that I would have killed that 200-class buck had I set up a decoy for him to lock in on. There are myriad scents and decoys available on the market now, and all can help improve your calling setup.
Never Be Afraid to Experiment
Deer and other animals make a wide variety of vocalizations, many of which are mimicked well by commercial calls, but some of which sound so strange, you'd never expect the noise came from a deer!
Over the years, I've heard some really unusual noises come out of whitetail deer. And you can bet if the deer made a particular noise, they will respond to that noise as well. I've used traditional methods like rattling and grunting and bleating to bring deer in, and I've also called deer in by breaking branches, rustling leaves, and even coughing!
It seems like I invariably get a cold at some point during the deer season, and I used to stay home because I figured all the coughing and sneezing was scaring every deer in the woods until, during a November hunt in Kansas, I called in a nice broken-beamed buck after a coughing spell! Deer cough, deer sneeze, deer belch, and deer make a wide variety of other sounds'¦all of which can be used to a hunter's advantage.
Luring a big game animal to pointblank bow range has a primal quality to it, and is undoubtedly something hunters have been practicing successfully since the dawn of mankind. It is without question one of the most exciting and satisfying of all hunting endeavors, and it should be a part of your bag of tricks come this fall. Just remember the rules I've discussed here when you hit the woods.
Author's Notes: I've called in dozens of animals using nothing more than my voice, but I never leave camp without a variety of deer calls in my pack. Many manufacturers offer adjustable calls now that mimic several distinct deer vocalizations, which is a big plus for hunters. I use Primos calls for all my hunting, whether I'm chasing bucks or bulls or longbeards, and I believe they make the very best
calls on the market.
I always use scents and scent-elimination products when I'm calling. In the event that a deer is able to circle downwind, being as scent-free as possible, while having actual deer odors in the air, can make the difference between success and failure. I've used Wildlife Research Center's products for many years now, and I'm completely satisfied with their game scents, cover scents, and the Scent Killer line.
The use of decoys is a great addition to calling whitetails, and can really help seal the deal when trying to call in and harvest a trophy buck. There are many fine decoys on the market, but my personal favorites include Flambeau's Boss Buck, and several of Montana Decoy's two-dimensional offerings.